Brown Rice Syrup: Good or Bad?
Added sugar is the single worst ingredient in the modern diet.
It is now believed to be among the leading causes of some of the world's biggest killers.
This includes not only obesity, but also type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer (, , , ).
Added sugar (and high fructose corn syrup) is made of two simple sugars... glucose and fructose.
One of the main reasons sugar is harmful, is because of the fructose.
Although some fructose from fruit is good, large amounts from added sugar can have disastrous effects on health (, ).
For this reason... many people have started trying to avoid fructose and have turned to fructose-free sweeteners instead.
One of these is Brown Rice Syrup (also called Rice Malt Syrup or simply Rice Syrup), which is essentially all made of glucose.
Glucose is also found in starchy foods like potatoes and is not considered as harmful for metabolic health as fructose.
Brown rice syrup is a sweetener derived from brown rice.
They make it by exposing cooked rice to enzymes that break down the starches and turn them into smaller sugars... then all the "impurities" are filtered out.
What is left is a thick, sugary syrup, which really doesn't resemble brown rice at all.
Brown rice syrup contains three sugars: Maltotriose (52%), maltose (45%) and glucose (3%).
However, don't be fooled by the names. Maltose is basically just two glucose molecules, while maltotriose is three glucose molecules.
So by the time rice syrup reaches your small intestine and gets broken down, it is basically just 100% glucose, the same sugar that raises blood sugar levels.
Bottom Line: Brown rice syrup is made by breaking down the starch in cooked rice, turning it into easily digestible sugars.
Although brown rice is highly nutritious, rice syrup contains very few nutrients.
There may be tiny amounts of minerals like calcium and potassium ().
But calorie for calorie (and carb for carb), this meager amount is completely negligible compared to what you would get from real food.
For all intents and purposes, brown rice syrup is "empty" calories. That is, plenty of energy with virtually no essential nutrients.
Bottom Line: Rice syrup contains a lot of energy with almost no essential nutrients. In other words, it is "empty" calories like most refined sugars.
There is an ongoing debate about added sugar and exactly why it causes harm.
Some think it's merely because of empty calories and that it can be bad for the teeth.
However... there is now compelling evidence that its harmful effects go way beyond that, and this appears to be primarily due to the fructose in it.
Whereas glucose can be metabolized by every cell in the body, fructose can only be metabolized in significant amounts by the liver ().
In the context of an unhealthy Western diet, this can be a complete disaster.
The fructose gets turned into fat, which either lodges in the liver (causing fatty liver and insulin resistance) or is shipped out, raising blood triglycerides (, , ).
Without getting into the gory details, these metabolic problems can lead to all sorts of diseases.
However... glucose can be metabolized by all of the body's cells, so it shouldn't have the same negative effects on liver function.
This is pretty much the only positive thing to be said about brown rice syrup. It doesn't contain fructose, only glucose.
Keep in mind that none of this applies to fruit, which are healthy foods. They contain small amounts of fructose, but also plenty of nutrients and fiber.
Bottom Line: There is no fructose in rice syrup, so it shouldn't have the same negative effects on liver function and metabolic health as regular sugar.
The glycemic index (GI) is a measure of how quickly foods raise blood sugar.
There is a lot of evidence that eating a lot of high GI foods is associated with obesity and many diseases (, ).
When we eat high GI foods, blood sugar and insulin levels go up rapidly and may "crash" later, leading to hunger and cravings ().
There are some claims about rice syrup having a Glycemic Index of 25, which is extremely low.
However... this number seems to be pulled out of thin air and is completely wrong. It doesn't even make sense because rice syrup is pretty much 100% easily digestible glucose.
According to the Sydney University GI database, Rice Syrup has a glycemic index of 98, which is extremely high ().
It is much higher than table sugar (GI of 60-70) and higher than almost any other sweetener on the market!
If you eat rice syrup, then it is highly likely to lead to rapid spikes in blood sugar.
Bottom Line: Rice syrup has a glycemic index of 98, which is higher than almost every other sweetener on the market. This can be a huge problem.
Arsenic is a toxic chemical that is often found in trace amounts in some foods... including rice and rice syrups.
One study looked at the of organic brown rice syrup. They tested isolated syrups, as well as products sweetened with rice syrup, including infant formulas ().
They found significant levels of arsenic in the products. The formulas had 20 times the total arsenic concentrations of the ones that weren't sweetened with rice syrup.
However, the FDA claims that the amounts are too low to be harmful (). But keep in mind that the FDA also says high fructose corn syrup and soybean oil is safe, so I would take their endorsement with a big grain of salt.
Bottom Line: Significant amounts of arsenic have been found in rice syrups and products sweetened with them. This is a potential cause for concern.
Unfortunately, there is no human study that actually feeds rice syrup to humans and sees what happens.
However... we do know that it has a very high glycemic index and essentially no nutrients. There is also a risk of arsenic contamination.
Even if it is fructose-free, rice syrup seems to be mostly bad news.
You will be much better of sweetening your foods with the sweeteners in this article here... they are natural, low-calorie sweeteners that don't raise blood sugar levels.
As with most caloric sweeteners, rice syrup should be used with caution... if you're going to eat it, use small amounts and don't eat it very often.
At the end of the day, brown rice syrup is not healthy. It is basically just empty, glucose spiking calories that may even be contaminated with arsenic.
I don't know about you... but I'm personally going to stay away from rice syrup and recommend to my family that they do the same.